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My Favourite Planet > English > People > Pliny the Elder

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Pliny the Elder

The Roman author Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 AD - 25 August 79 AD) is usually referred to in English as Pliny, or as Pliny the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew Pliny the Younger [1]. He is best known for his only surviving work, the encyclopedic 37 volume Naturalis Historia (Natural History), written in Latin and published around 77-79 AD, which he dedicated to the newly-crowned emperor Titus (reigned 79-81 AD). This influential work remains an important source for scholars of the ancient history of science and culture.

Pliny the Elder was a biographer, historian, naturalist and natural philosopher, as well as a lawyer, provincial governor and army and naval commander of the early Roman Empire, and a personal friend of Emperor Vespasian (reigned 69-79 AD) and his son and successor Titus. Born in Novum Comum (Como, northern Italy), he was the son of Gaius Plinius Celer, a member of the equestrian order of equites (knights), and his wife Marcella. He never married and had no children. In his will he adopted his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who inherited his estate and considerable wealth.

After his education in Rome, Pliny served as an infantry and cavalry officer in Germania during the reigns of Claudius (41-54 AD) and Nero (54-68 AD), and wrote De jaculatione equestri (Throwing the javelin from horseback), a treatise on the use of the javelin by cavalry. On his return to Rome, around 56-59 AD, he practised as a lawyer and wrote a two-volume biography of his former commander and patron Publius Pomponius Secundus (a poet and author of tragedies, and a brother-in-law of Caligula), and Bella Germaniae (History of the German Wars) in twenty volumes, which was used as a source by the historians Tacitus and Suetonius.

During Nero's "reign of terror", his deposition in 68 AD and the consequent civil war (the Year of the Four Emperors, 69 AD), Pliny kept a low profile, held no public office and wrote on politically safe subjects such as a three-volume educational manual on rhetoric, Studiosus (The student, later divided into six books because of its length), and an eight-volume work on grammar, Dubii sermonis (On doubtful phraseology or Ambiguity in language). None of these works have survived.

When Vespasian became emperor Pliny was appointed as a procurator (governor) of a number of imperial provinces. The number (perhaps four) and locations of his procuratorships are uncertain, but he is known to have governed in Hispania Tarraconensis (northern and eastern Spain) [2], and perhaps Gallia Narbonensis (southeastern France), Africa (north Africa) and Gallia Belgica (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands).

During this period Pliny also added thirty one books to the unfinished Histories by Aufidius Bassus [3]. He did not publish this work, leaving it, as he says in the preface to the Natural History, to his heir Pliny the Younger. He claims he did this to avoid the accusation of ambition, but may have feared that it was too politically controversial.

He probably returned to Rome in 75 or 76 AD, and is thought to have published the first version of the first ten books of the Natural History in 77 AD. He was busy enlarging and revising the work when he was appointed as prefect (commander or admiral) of the fleet at Misenum (Cape Miseno), the largest base of the Roman navy, at the northwest end of the Bay of Naples.

According to the letters of Pliny the Younger (see note below), he died in his 56th year during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 25 August 79 AD, which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He had been staying with his sister and nephew at Misenum, and was preparing to sail to investigate the eruption when he received a plea for help from a friend named Rectina, who with her family was trapped by the catastrophe at their villa at Stabiae, near Pompeii. During the rescue attempt the wind prevented his ship leaving the shore, and he is said to have died as a result of volcanic fumes, although his companions survived.

The final version of the Natural History was published after his death by Pliny the Younger. It is a vast work and a wide-ranging attempt to provide a comprehensive record of contemporary knowledge of the natural world, its resources and their exploitation by humans. Pliny claimed to have been the first Roman to have written such an encyclopedia, and such comprehensive works had previously only been attempted by Greeks.

The fields of natural sciences discussed by Pliny include botany, zoology, anthropology, human physiology, astronomy, geography, geology and mineralogy. He also describes how natural resources [4] such as water, animals, plants, wood, stone and metals are exploited in agriculture, medicine, mining, engineering, building and art. His mentions of ancient painters, sculptors and architects and their works continue to provide one of the most extensive ancient sources (along with Vitruvius and Pausanias) of information and debate - and often consternation - for historians of Greek and Roman art.

His travels around parts of the empire on his official duties provided him with material for his writing, and several accounts of phenomena, locations, buildings, artworks and events in the Natural History, such as a solar eclipse in Campania in 59 AD (Natural History, Book 2, chapter 72), are thought to be first-hand accounts based on his own experiences and observations. However, most of the information in the work is based on books by several earlier authors.

Although the Natural History includes historical surveys of human activities such as sculpture and painting, it is not primarily a work of history. The word "history" in the title is often seen to mean enquiry, in the same way as the Greek title of the Histories of Herodotus also originally meant Enquiries.

The work has survived in around 200 Medieval manuscripts, the earliest dating from the 8th or 9th century, although some passages and abstracts appeared in works from as early as the 3rd century. They contain many errors, corruptions and alterations made by copyists, but no definitive version considered as closest to the original has been identified. The first printed edition was published in Venice in 1469 by Johann and Wendelin of Speyer.

There is no known surviving ancient portrait of Pliny.




Pliny's Natural history can be read online.

In English:

Pliny, The natural history. Translated by John Bostock and H. T. Riley. Taylor and Francis, London, 1855. At Perseus Digital Library. With notes.


Pliny's Natural History. Translated by H. Rackham
(vols. 1-5, 9), W. H. S. Jones (vols. 6-8) and
D. E. Eichholz (vol. 10). Published in 10 volumes
by Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA,
and William Heinemann, London, 1949-54.

The entire work on one web page, with
an introduction and table of contents.
At Jon Lange's fascinating Masseiana website.

In Latin:

Pliny the Elder, The natural history. At Bill Thayer's LacusCurtius website, University of Chicago.

Naturalis Historia. Edited by Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff. Teubner, Leipzig. 1906. At Perseus Digital Library.
 
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Marble head of Emperor Claudius.

From a statue. Found in the cella of the
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Asia Minor. Circa 50 AD. One of a series
of portraits of members of the Julio-
Claudian dynasty, the first imperial
family, set up by the people of Priene.
Excavated 1868/1869. Height 44.45 cm.

British Museum.
1870.3-20.200 (Sculpture 1155).
Donated in 1870 by the Society of Dilettanti.
 
Marble portrait head of Emperor Nero from Corinth at My Favourite Planet

Marble portrait head from a statue
of Emperor Nero as a priest with
capita velato (with covered head). [5]

Excavated in the Julian Basilica, in the
Forum of Ancient Corinth. Circa 60 AD.

Corinth Archaeological Museum.
Inv. No. S-1088.
 
Marble head of Emperor Vespasian at My Favourite Planet

Marble head of Emperor Vespasian.

From Carthage, Tunisia. Circa 70-80 AD.
Height 45.72 cm.

The large than lifesize head from a
statue may have been re-carved
from a portrait of Nero after his
suicide and damnatio memoriae.

British Museum.
Inv. No. 1850.3-4.35 (Sculpture 1890).
Bequeathed by Sir Thomas Reade. [6]
 
Marble head of Emperor Titus at My Favourite Planet

Marble head of Emperor Titus.

From Utica, Tunisia. Circa 70-81 AD.
Height: 30.48 cm.

British Museum. Inv. No. 1909.6-10.1.
Purchased in 1909 from W. Caudery & Co.
 
Pliny the Elder Notes, references and links

1. Pliny the Younger

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (61 - circa 112 AD), born Gaius Caecilius or Gaius Caecilius Cilo, usually referred to in English as Pliny the Younger, was the nephew of Pliny the Elder. Born in Novum Comum (Como, Northern Italy), he was the son of Lucius Caecilius Cilo and Plinia Marcella, a sister of Pliny the Elder. His father died when he was a boy, and his uncle helped raise and educate him. He was a lawyer, magistrate, author, poet and orator. Like his father and uncle, he was a member of the aristocratic order of equites (knights). He held several of the highest imperial offices, including senator, quaestor, consul and governor of Bithynia and Pontus province. It is thought that he died while serving in Bythinia.

Many of the letters he wrote to friends and associates have survived, collected in ten books known as the Epistulae (Letters), the last of which consists entirely of letters to and from Emperor Trajan. In two letters (Epistulae, Book 6, letters 16 and 20), written to Tacitus around 106 AD, he decribes the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 25 August 79 AD, which he witnessed from Misenum, and Pliny the Elder's death. He wrote that he decided to stay and work at home rather than join his uncle's expedition.

The letters in Latin and English: Pliny the Younger : Letters. At attalus.org.

2. Pliny as procurator of Hispania Tarraconensis

Pliny the Younger mentions that his uncle was procurator of Hispania Tarraconensis in a letter to Baebius Macer (Epistulae, Book 3, letter 5), in which he lists Pliny the Elder's books in chronological order.

3. Aufidius Bassus

Little is known about the life and lost works of Aufidius Bassus. He lived during the reign of Tiberius (14-37 AD), was an Epicurean, a friend of Seneca, and much admired in Rome. He wrote a Bellum Germanicum, about the Roman conquest of Germania, and a Histories (or History of our own Times), probably covering the period between the Roman civil wars or the death of Julius Caesar and the time of Tiberius. Bassus died after a long illness, leaving his Histories unfinished. Pliny's additional books probably continued the account up to the reign of Vespasian.

4. "Natural resources"

Nature has been seen by humans throughout history as a source of necessities and luxuries to be exploited, mostly unquestioningly, often as a god-given right or duty. Such attitudes, of course, are now being widely opposed.

5. The head of Nero from Corinth

The head is similar to one excavated in 1869 in Rome, dated around 54-59 BC, which may have originally stood in the temple of Apollo on the Palatine Hill. Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, National Museum of Rome. Inv. No. 616.

6. The head of Vespasian in the British Museum

According to the museum label, the head of Vespasian was "bequeathed by Sir Thomas Reade". However, the Collection online of the British Museum website tells us that it was excavated by Sir Thomas Reade (1782-1849, British consul in Tunis 1844-1849) and purchased in 1850 from John Doubleday (1797-1856, a restorer and curator at the British Museum). In the short biography of Thomas Reade we learn that "he collected many antiquities, including numerous items from Carthage excavated by Nathan Davis".

Acccording to a British Museum catalogue, the head was found during excavations undertaken at Carthage by Sir Thomas Reade in 1835-1836, and purchased by the museum in 1850.

A. H. Smith, A catalogue of sculpture in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Volume III, No. 1890, page 155 and Plate XX. British Museum, 1901. At the Internet Archive.

The format of inventory numbers of objects ("Museum number") in the Collection online also differs from that on labels. On the label of the Vespasian head, the number is 1850.3-4.35, while in the database it is 1850,0304.35.

The British Museum does an exemplary job in providing a comprehensive online database of its enormous collection. It contains detailed information, photos and illustrations of most of the objects in the museum, including many which are not on display. We wish all museums would offer such an excellent public service. Compiling and maintaining such a database involves an enormous amount of work and expertise in several academic and technical fields, so it not surprising that there remain some gaps and inconsistencies in the documentation. Often the information varies from that on the museum's labelling and in other documents and publications.

Collection online at the British Museum website.
 
Photos and articles © David John
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